Predictions for 2009: we count our chickens before they’re hatched. Literally.

Charlie has got some debate going with his ten predictions for 2009, and I’m not going to try to rival it.  But after a year of following food prices unusually closely, I’ve decided to go where even Alex Evans has not gone before in an effort to tell the future: the official US Poultry Outlook Report – December 2008.  And no, this isn’t about avian flu.  It’s about how the global downturn is going to create a rift between increasingly internationalist turkey farmers and isolationist, America-first chicken and egg producers.  Feathers will fly!

Let’s start with chickens (to the initiated, “broilers”).  For the first nine months of last year, production was growing strongly.  But as food prices slumped over the last few months, so did the number of “chick placements” – which I assume is code for “fattening the little critters up in a big shed until they can’t walk”:

Over the last 5 weeks (8 November to 6 December, 2008), the number of chicks placed for growout averaged 7.4 per cent lower than for the same period in 2007. With uncertainties about the domestic and world economies, the trend of year-over-year declines in chick placement is expected to continue well into 2009. With smaller chick placements forecast, the estimates of broiler meat production have been adjusted downward in fourth-quarter 2008 and in the first three quarters of 2009.

Who are we going to blame for this? Foreigners. Unless they like brown meat:

All the uncertainties in the global economy have combined to sharply reduce the demand for broiler exports . . . but declining exports may be slightly mitigated by lower prices for leg quarters, the primary export.

So expect the chicken farming lobby to turn inwards. Their disinterest in foreign affairs will only be compounded by increasing imbalances in the egg market:

Shipments of all shell eggs and egg products in October totaled 17.9 million dozen, down 13 per cent from the previous year. Much of the decline is due to lower shipments to Mexico and Hong Kong.

But it’s all very different on the turkey front. There’s a glut of the damn things – more and more are being put into cold storage – and production is expected to slow  as a result. With supply higher than demand, the U.S. needs to offload large quantities of its national bird. Fortunately, there are proven markets available:

Turkey exports remained very strong in October, totaling 71.8 million pounds, up 36 per cent from the previous year. Much of the increase in October’s turkey exports was due to higher shipments to the largest markets — exports to Mexico, Canada, and the combined China/Hong Kong markets were all up considerably from the previous year.

So that’s good news… but wait a minute! Not only is China propping up the U.S. economy by buying vast quantities of American bonds, but now we discover that it will start underwriting the turkey industry? What if Beijing stopped buying? Even Mexico slapped a temporary ban on birds from some U.S. plants just before Christmas on health grounds.  And last Tuesday Russia demonstrated its resurgent nationalism by slashing its total poultry import quota from the U.S. by 1.25 million metric tons to 952,000 metric tons.  So here’s my first big question for 2009: can the U.S. poultry industry adapt to a multi-polar world?

Next week: a post in which I explain the new world order by tracking trends in the price of tea-leaves.